By Lindsay Toler
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By Riverfront Times
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The second chop suey origin myth takes place in the years following California's gold rush of 1849. A group of hungry miners arrived at a Chinese restaurant just as its owner was about to close for the night. Unable to turn the miners away, the cook threw some leftovers in a wok and fried it up. The miners loved it. When they asked its name, the restaurant owner replied, "chop suey," meaning literally "little pieces." (A variation involves American workers stopping by a Chinese camp during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.)
Typically made from bamboo shoots, celery, onion, water chestnuts, bean sprouts and some sort of meat, chop suey is served over rice and cooked with a salty, cornstarch-laden gravy that's virtually unheard of in traditional Chinese cooking. Though unknown in China, the dish is thought to be a rough-and-ready replica of tsap seui, a stir-fried dish of "chopped bits" that hails from Toisan, a rural town south of Canton and the ancestral home of many nineteenth-century immigrants.
"When the Chinese first came over to work in the mines, there were no women, only men. They didn't have good cooking skills because they never cooked at home," says cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, who's often referred to as the Julia Child of Chinese cooking. "They didn't have Chinese ingredients. So they cooked American vegetables in the Chinese style, but they also began using more meat and made a gooey cornstarch-based sauce."
There were other differences between American-born chop suey and its platonic ancestor. Not only was tsap seuimade chiefly of Chinese vegetables, but parsimonious Chinese chefs would often use only scrap meat: ears, feet, intestines animal parts Americans don't like to think about, let alone see.
"At the time China was a very agrarian society," notes Cynthia Ai-Fen Lee, a curator at New York's Museum of Chinese in the Americas. "They'd often use entrails and giblets. Nothing was left to waste."
Early Chinese-American cooks modeled what would become egg foo young after its more exotic Chinese ancestor, fu yung don.
"The way they are making egg foo young is very different from what they're making in China," says Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. "In China it's a very fluffy dish of creamy scrambled eggs with baby river shrimp. It is really very delicious. It's elegant, and many times we'll top it with pine nuts.
"It's very different from egg foo young, which is more like a Frisbee," the cookbook author concludes. (Having never visited a St. Louis chop suey house, Lo has never sampled a St. Paul Sandwich. "Oh, my goodness!" she exclaims upon hearing a description of the local specialty. "That sounds awful! That sounds really awful.")
Inelegant, perhaps. But with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, jobs for Chinese laborers were becoming scarce. Often seen as insular exotics, the Chinese in America were subjected to widespread discrimination. In 1882 the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a tough anti-Chinese law that barred further immigration of Chinese laborers and ensured that the Chinese-American population would be made up almost entirely of Cantonese bachelors.
Bachelors who didn't cook.
Some Chinese laborers found work on farms. Otherwise, laundries and restaurants were the main businesses that remained open to them. Many of the early eateries catered mainly to other Chinese bachelors though many also served "American" fare like apple pie and turkey, according to Yong Chen, a researcher at University of California-Irvine who specializes in the history of Chinese-American cuisine. More to the point, Chen says, those early Chinese cooks ingeniously began to craft Chinese-like food out of recognizably American ingredients.
"This coincided with 'Chinatown' becoming a tourist attraction," Chen adds. "From the early days, they realized that there were certain things that Americans wouldn't eat, [like] shark's fin or abalone. It wouldn't sell in American markets. So they constantly tried to modify their menu based on their assumptions about what non-Chinese customers would like. They thought Americans would like sweet things, so they made lots of sweet-and-sour things."
In 1790 the German thinker Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Judgment, a slim volume that turned the West's ideas about ethics and aesthetics on their collective head.
Dissatisfied with the Socratic notion that ideal justice, beauty or good exists only on some astral plane, Kant brought perfection to the people. He reasoned that through rational thought, we can each arrive at a judgment that is just. Through these same rational steps, we can form correct aesthetic judgments and divine the true "good." No longer were humans relegated to the role of witness with no choice but to love the perfect. Instead, Kant articulated a philosophy of radical subjectivity.
Ultimately Kant believed rationality was a one-way street and that each of us using correct reason, of course would arrive at the same conclusion. Still, he opened the door. It was his line of philosophical inquiry that allowed us not only to love something despite its imperfections; his philosophy allowed those very imperfections to become the objects of our affection.
The overwhelming Platonist qualities of authentic Chinese food likely ruined Theodore Dreiser for humbler Kantian pleasures when he arrived in St. Louis' Chinatown, located at the site that would later become the old Busch Stadium and known as Hop Alley.